The Rising Noise of Silence

This is a commentary piece for a semi-regular slot on the BBC’s World Service. It’s not content that appears on Reuters, nor does it reflect the views of my employer. 

I’m here to report a new scourge of the public space: folk who watch video on their tablets in public without a headset. Just the other day someone sat next to me in a coffee shop watching a local soap opera on her iPad quite oblivious to the disturbance she was causing me and, well, just me.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but I’ve canvassed friends and it’s clearly a problem that extends far and wide. I’m told ferries in Hong Kong are abuzz with this kind of noise pollution, as are subways and buses in Singapore, as well as flights into and across the Philippines and India.

Putting aside my own tendency to be annoyed by more or less anything these days, I think we have here an example of a counterintuitive trend: what sociologists might call the reclaiming of public space from intrusive technology.

Think about it for a second. Up until a few years ago our biggest bugbear were loudmouths on their cellphones intruding on our reverie in trains, coffee shops and dentists’ waiting rooms.

This is not exactly yet a thing of the past, but it’s beginning to be, because as we’ve embraced the smartphone so have we preferred to occupy our time communicating via text or playing games on our devices. Take mobile phone usage in the UK as an example: the number of minutes most people spend talking on their mobile phone has fallen by 19% between 2007 and 2012. This, I believe, is a global trend whenever phones go from those basic ones that just do voice and SMS to smartphones, where you can do lots of other things.

The trend, therefore, is less time spent talking on phones, which means less time annoying other people in public.

This is a good thing. It basically reverses a trend we thought was irreversible – namely that technology was always going to intrude further into our lives.
So back to the watching video in public without a headset thing.

We’ve gone through an interesting couple of years on mobile. We’ve seen a lot more people buy smartphones, and we’ve seen smartphone screens get bigger. We’ve also seen a lot of carriers deploy faster networks, and in many cases reduce prices. All of this makes video on a portable device possible.

So it’s not surprising that folk are consuming video on their devices in extraordinary quantities. In 2013 video accounted for about a third of global mobile data traffic, according to Ericsson. By 2019, it will account for more than half.

Driving this are deeper phenomena: a lot of the people with these devices and connections don’t have a lot of space to call their own: they live and commute through crowded sites, sleep in cramped flats or dorms. While I do worry about all the neck problems we’re going to see in the years to come, it’s hard to begrudge people carving out a little private space for themselves wherever they can find it.

In a way, I’m amazed that this revolution hasn’t been more intrusive and irksome. For all the folks who aren’t wearing a headset when they immerse themselves in streaming soap, there are thousands, millions of folks who are.

So I’ll desist from decrying these inconsiderate souls, and marvel at how quickly we’ve adopted these new ways of reclaiming some privacy out of public space. What’s astonishing is probably how seamless this transition has been – and how quiet our public lives have become.

One thought on “The Rising Noise of Silence

  1. This brings to mind a problem-solving use for the truly terrible dollar-store headphones I used to have as a kid (and invariably break within days): carry around a few new pairs and give one to the inconsiderate video user who would otherwise be ruining your time out.

    “That’s annoying. Don’t you have headphones?”
    “No.”
    “Here. Now you do.”

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